For the past several years, Colorado students have left tens of millions in federal funds for their college education untapped — somewhere between $30 million to $50 million.

“It’s a pot of gold,” said Angie Paccione, the Colorado Higher Education Department executive director. “If you don’t access that money, it’s your loss.” 

The state’s low completion rate of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid among high students places Colorado near the bottom in the nation — 47th overall — and well below the national average. 

While other states show that sustained, comprehensive strategies can help students complete the complicated form and access thousands of dollars to further their education after high school, Colorado has mostly pieced together smaller initiatives. The state’s approach contrasts starkly with national leaders like Tennessee or Louisiana.

Advocates and college and state leaders agree Colorado needs to do more to help students complete the FAFSA that allows students the ability to pursue their college dreams through access to scholarships and federal grants.

Colorado faces many challenges in improving those numbers.

Free community college tuition programs such as in Tennessee, whose FAFSA completion rates are closing in on 80%, cost money to maintain. The Volunteer State’s Tennessee Promise program requires students to fill out the FAFSA and relies heavily on students to qualify for federal Pell Grants that can be used at state community colleges. 

Colorado, on the other hand, has struggled in the last 20 years to sustain funding for higher education. Lawmakers this year cut funding to colleges and universities by 5% overall due to the pandemic.

Louisiana requires high school students to complete the form for graduation. Enacting that propelled Louisiana from one of the worst in the country to second in the nation in FAFSA completion. In Colorado, that would take agreement from school districts and state leaders in a government that allows local leaders to decide what’s best for their community.

To boost FAFSA completion, Colorado has created a five-week “Colorado Applies” month, with a campaign culminating in a “Free Application Day” to area colleges and universities. The initiative is perhaps one of the state’s most effective.

The Colorado Department of Higher Education partners with high schools and brings together all 32 public colleges and universities in Colorado and several private institutions to get students during the month to fill out the form. The month culminates in one day where students can apply to area colleges free of cost. 

The percentage of students filling out the FAFSA has increased in October by several points since the effort’s inception three years ago.

But the initiative’s success is short-lived. The October spike in completion rates levels off, leading to year-over-year stagnant FAFSA completion rates.

Paccione said the state is working to create a more robust strategy to encourage families to fill out the detailed 10-page form whose complexity has been compared to filing income taxes.

The state created town halls to educate families about financial aid and launched a website with online tools to help families navigate the FAFSA, she said. The goal, Paccione said, was to get the October initiative running and then “add pieces to it.”

This year, in Colorado and nationally, FAFSA completion rates dropped by about 4 percentage points due to pandemic.

Paccione said officials seek to connect students to financial aid application resources despite the pandemic. But college leaders and advocates hope Colorado leaders push for new ways to help students.

For schools such as Metropolitan State University of Denver, increased numbers completing the FAFSA would ensure that students, especially those who are low income, have the funds and resources to access college, said Thad Spaulding, the school’s financial aid and scholarship executive director.

MSU Denver participates in the Free Application Day and partners with high schools to help students. But it also employs its own strategies to ensure MSU Denver students can access the funds they need.

Spaulding and his team identify students who might need financial help and work with them to complete and verify their FAFSA form, a crucial step to becoming eligible for federal funding.

“State institutions and colleges could really rally behind a real solid, unified effort,” Spaulding said.

Meanwhile, Democrats for Education Reform Policy Director Prateek Dutta said his organization helped push a state bill that created grants for districts to educate families about the FAFSA and to train counselors to help them. The advocacy group has also supported other legislation to improve access to advanced coursework and college for students of color and those from low-income backgrounds.

But he said the state has failed to make a concerted effort with everyone involved in college applications, to help students access federal aid.

”That’s part of the reason why I believe we have slipped in the rankings and why other states are surpassing us,” Dutta said.

He supports a requirement pioneered by Louisiana that students complete the FAFSA to graduate. Thirteen other states across the country have considered a similar FAFSA requirement.

But experts agree that imposing a graduation requirement must be accompanied by  comprehensive support for students.

And the policy isn’t a cure-all. Research also found an increase in forms missing information or signatures, and problems with information verification, especially in districts with more low-income students and students of color. That means those applicants likely lost out on federal grants.

And students in the country illegally and those learning English also had difficulty with the requirement, because they lacked a Social Security number or struggled to interpret the form.

Paccione said that her department would also need support from K-12 education leaders and lawmakers to coalesce behind a Colorado strategy like those in other states — consensus that might be hard to come by as the state deals with fallout from the pandemic.

In the meantime, Paccione said her office will advocate and support students and families, so that they don’t leave free money for college on the table.

Higher education reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado in partnership with Open Campus.